“…so many Rhode Islanders who are afraid to step into that building, that giant, white building with all those quote-unquote ‘fancy people’ who look nothing like me and who know nothing about my story and [yet] who make laws about our communities.“
On September 8, Tiara Mack won her Democratic primary race for Rhode Island State Senate, beating long-time incumbent Harold Metts with more than 59 percent of the vote. Raised in the South and educated at Brown University, Mack is currently an educator and youth organizer at Planned Parenthood and a board member of the Women’s Health and Education Fund. The significance of her primary victory against Metts, an anti-choice candidate with more than 14 years in office, cannot be overstated. In addition to reflecting a widespread desire to elect champions of reproductive justice – as over 70 percent of Rhode Islanders support pro-choice law – Mack’s victory also signals a growing discomfort with the conservative Democratic establishment, many of whom are known colloquially as DINOs (Democrats In Name Only).
Mack is a member of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, an organization that collectively ran a slate of progressive candidates to mount primary challenges against some of the most conservative Democrats in the state. Mack, running on a platform of affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and a Green New Deal, is part of a powerful Progressive movement that brought an unprecedented and earthshaking challenge to Rhode Island’s political establishment last month.
On the patio of Seven Stars Bakery on Hope Street, UpriseRI sat down with Mack to talk about why she believes she won, what she has learned about political organizing, and what needs to change within the walls of the Rhode Island State House.
UpriseRI: Can you talk about how you got into politics and what motivated you to run for State Senate?
Tiara Mack: I did a political internship through Planned Parenthood the summer after my sophomore year [at Brown University]. That was my first foray into Rhode Island politics. I was under the illusion that I was in the liberal North, that this was a blue state, everyone’s like blue, blue, blue. Then, during that legislative session, I realized that the politicians who were in power in our state did not reflect the ideals of the conversations around me. That was when I was introduced to the term DINO: Democrats In Name Only. And that was when I really got involved.
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UpriseRI: Do you remember a specific moment or experience that really motivated you to run and solidified your resolve?
Mack: Oh, one hundred percent. It was basically the entirety of the RPA [Reproductive Privacy Act]. I’ve been an abortion funder in Rhode Island since 2015, working with the Women’s Health and Education Fund as a volunteer. After graduating, I stayed a volunteer and became a board member in 2016. That translated into going to the State House and fighting for safe legal abortion to be codified into Rhode Island law. I testified several times in the Judiciary Committee and Health and Human Services. I went to the State House Tuesday through Thursday for weeks and weeks, months and months. And I had an elected official [Harold Metts] who heard those testimonies of hundreds of people—doctors, lawyers, committee members, folks who had had abortions, folks who are supportive of a person’s right to choose—and literally his line was something like, “I would rather have faith in God than in man.” And that was where I realized: this is not someone who is reflective of my ideals. I had an anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ rights incumbent as my [State] Senator, who had been there for, at the time, ten years, but now 14 years, and I realized someone had to take him on.
UpriseRI: Relatedly, can you talk about the organizing work you’ve done around reproductive justice and how that’s shaped you and what you intend to do in office?
Mack: I grew up in the conservative, Christian south. In the sixth grade, I signed an abstinence pledge and that was my only sex education. An abstinence pledge where I wrote down that the people who would keep me to my abstinence pledge are my mom, my future boyfriend, and my friends – some 11-year-old bullshit like that. Going to Brown, on top of being Black and low-income and not having any tools to talk about my own body, about race-class narratives, about wealth narratives, I just felt like a fish out of water. And so that really inspired me to start teaching sex ed, because if I had these feelings as a low-income, Black student going to this institution with no idea how to talk about my own body, about my own autonomy, about sex – which everyone seems to be able to talk about freely and I felt so uncomfortable about – then there must be other young people who didn’t have comprehensive, culturally specific, sexual health education. It was really exciting. It was a really awesome way to learn how to advocate for something that I never had.
UpriseRI: As you were knocking on doors, what were some of the issues and concerns that you were hearing from folks that Senator Metts had not been addressing?
Mack: Well, one: he had never knocked doors. He was running on his longtime name in the community and so never really felt the need to knock on folks’ doors. And the fact that I could do so in English and Spanish, I think that was the biggest thing. And folks were really upset with his lack of progress in socially progressive ideas. Even after marriage equality had been passed in 2015, [he’s someone that] still did not vote for solemnization of marriage licenses in Rhode Island. Someone who’s very anti-choice, who’s put Bible quotes on State House stationary, someone who introduced the really harmful voter ID laws. That was one of the things that folks said was the final straw. Most people were like: “Oh, he’s a product of his time. Homophobia? cool. Not everyone’s pro-choice. But voter ID laws in Rhode Island? Fuck that, dude.”
UpriseRI: Do you know why that issue was so important?
Mack: Well, voter ID laws impact so many people in our state. Imagine all the people who don’t have access to a driver’s license, low-income folks who rely on public transportation to get to and from work. They don’t have a driver’s license – they have no need for a driver’s license – and now their right to vote has been taken away. We have an aging population, especially on the East Side, Mount Hope area, folks who’ve been in this community for years and who walk to the grocery store or take public transportation and never had a reason to get a driver’s license. All of a sudden, their right to vote was infringed upon because of a very harmful voter ID law that exists only in states like Texas and South Carolina and…Rhode Island?
UpriseRI: Can you talk about the role of the Rhode Island Political Co–op in your campaign and in your win? And what has been your experience running alongside a slate of other progressive candidates?
Mack: I would not have run if it were not for the Rhode Island Political Coop. That was one of the reasons that I was able to run with confidence: having a group of people, many of whom are Black. There were other queer candidates, other women of color candidates. I was sharing the experience alongside them. Being able to pass along all the questions that seem kind of silly to political insiders: what does it mean to have a district committee? Do I have to run someone from my district committee? How many signatures do I have to get? How do I get these signatures? Is this like an appropriate thing to put on my Facebook? Is this a good tweet? Does this picture look cute? How’s my hair look? What are you wearing to this press conference? All those silly questions that don’t seem political, but [they are. It’s valuable] to have a group of people that are not politically connected and who won’t look down on you when you say: what’s a TSA? How does legislation become law?
And then also just having the political training. Most political training, like how to run a candidate seat, either takes time, money, or both. There are so many organizations that show you how to run an effective campaign, how to do a campaign plan, and they require you to travel to a different state and they require lots of money, lots of time. With the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, training was flexible. It was tailored to the specific questions we have in Rhode Island.
UpriseRI: You’ve talked before about the inaccessibility and lack of representation in Rhode Island politics. What would you like to see changed not only about who represents Rhode Islanders at the State House, but also how conversations are conducted and how policy decisions are made?
Mack: I live eight minutes away from the State House; I can literally drive my car there in eight minutes. I could ride my bike there in 11. I can walk there in 25 to 30. It is so fricking close and there are so many Rhode Islanders who are afraid to step into that building, that giant, white building with all those quote-unquote ‘fancy people’ who look nothing like me and who know nothing about my story and [yet] who make laws about our communities. That is scary for some people. So demystifying that building: there’s gonna be a queer, Black woman with, like, six tattoos up in there so come on down! I think that’s one of the powerful things.
UpriseRI: Your platform includes support of the Green New Deal, which aims to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs. Can you talk about the urgency and necessity of the Green New Deal and how you intend to make that happen?
Mack: The Green New Deal is a way that we’re going to address the housing crisis. It’s a way that we’re going to address the economic crisis. It’s a way that we’re going to create a livable future for all of our future generations. We are creating climate refugees in our own country. Californians are having to make the decision of whether or not to restart their life in California or pick up and move to somewhere else that is going to be livable for maybe another decade. We see it right here in Rhode Island. Our coastline is shrinking every single year. Soon, we’re going to have Warwick underwater. We’re the Ocean State and we’re going to literally be consumed by the ocean in a matter of decades.
We have a robust labor force right here in Rhode Island that we’re not using because we’re not building clean and green energy. We can create green new jobs and sustain those jobs over the next decade by creating schools, housing, rail lines, bus lines, roads that are all better equipped to make sure that people can travel to and from where they need to go in green ways.
UpriseRI: There’s been a resounding call to defund and abolish the police both in cities across the country and here in Providence. Why do you think this is important and how do you think we get there?
Mack: I believe that defunding is a tool that we are going to use to abolish the police system. We see that there are so many social programs that are significantly underfunded. Most folks who are arrested are very poor and put into our legal and criminal system. It’s not because they are bad people; it’s because they do not have access to the resources they need to survive. Most crime happens not because people are willfully committing crimes; it’s because they literally have no other option. So we invest in a livable wage. Families that have a livable wage are less likely to commit crime. Families that have access to better education, that have access to after school programs and recreation for our young people, are less likely to get in trouble with the law.
We also have communities that are overly criminalized based on their zip code, their race, their class, and that is extremely wrong. [We need to do] things like legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of all the folks who are in the criminal justice system with marijuana charges. Things like legalizing sex work and making sure that we are medicalizing and not criminalizing addiction in our communities because it is a public health crisis and not a criminal justice crisis. We are funneling people into the criminal justice system with no way to rehabilitate. Prison recidivism is at its highest in our country because we are not working on social programs. We’re overfunding our police departments and underfunding all the ways in which we can actually eliminate the ways in which people are entering that system in the first place. Plus, why are we putting more money into the police during a global pandemic and not putting more money into our schools or our healthcare or into workers pockets and hazard pay?
UpriseRI: What does your victory and the victory of other progressive candidates say about what Rhode Island voters are looking for? What are progressives in Rhode Island willing to do right now? And what’s unique about this political moment?
Mack: It shows that people are finally paying attention to local politics. We had some of the highest voting rates during this global pandemic and the status quo corruption is not going to pass [the test]. People are looking for a livable wage. They are looking for answers as to why our state is not one of the leaders of progressive ideals. They’re looking for answers to why we’re not leaning in to a Green New Deal and economic justice [and] racial justice. Why does Massachusetts have much more progressive policy than Rhode Island and it’s 20 minutes away? Why does Connecticut have much more progressive policy and it’s 50 minutes away? Rhode Islanders are demanding answers to those questions. And for the first time, there’s a slate of candidates who can provide those answers and solutions.
UpriseRI: Who are your role models right now?
Mack: I’m going to make this about fantasy novels because that’s what I do. Seeing afrofuturism has been really powerful. Seeing worlds that are created with Black characters, characters free from the gender binary, and seeing futurescapes where there is equity and equality. Even something as simple as Star Wars, seeing them overcome those evil senators through a saga—
UpriseRI: Is that what your campaign feels like?
Mack: [Laughter] Yeah. I’m trying to bring fantasy novels to life through policy, making the world that we see in books. It’s such an escape, and it shouldn’t have to be an escape. It should be reality. We should be able to read those stories and say, “It’s not weird that we have social equity. It’s not weird that no one blinks an eye when this character comes out as trans or when they’re gender nonbinary, or when you don’t have to refer to someone as their race and we are all equal. [It’s not weird that] the environment is actually cared about in the future and [that] we’re not destroying our planet systematically [or] seeking to escape to another planet.” Because this one’s on fire.
This interview was co-published with the College Hill Independent and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.